Politics & Government

Kucinich mixes street savvy with controversial style

WASHINGTON — Day after day, 12-year-old Dennis Kucinich wore the same pair of turquoise blue pinstriped pants to school.

Other kids teased him about the pants, which he'd bought for a quarter at a Salvation Army store, but Kucinich had nothing else to wear. Finally, a nun at his school told him to stay after class and gave him and his family boxes of clothes.

"It was an extraordinary act of charity," the Democratic presidential candidate said in a recent interview. "Every step along the way there were people there to help us."

Kucinich is a product of west Cleveland, a middle-class urban community that thrived when America's factories were humming, but has been struggling to survive for at least a generation.

Like so many Rust Belt ethnic enclaves, the congressman's district is still largely populated by scrappers, people who worked with their hands and lived by their wits and relied heavily on their governments — state, local and federal — for safety nets and jobs when times were bad.

It's long been a place where politicians are friends, neighbors and favor-dispensers. Maintaining that street-level sense has been the key to Kucinich's rocky yet ultimately triumphant political career, one that saw him become mayor of Cleveland in 1977, at age 31, then saw him nearly recalled from office as the media mocked him as "Dennis the Menace."

Kucinich rose from a childhood in which he lived in 21 different places, including a car and an orphanage. He survived his childhood by being smart — his mother taught him to read by age 3 — and brash.

In the 10th grade, as he rode the bus to Catholic school — which he could afford because he had a job caddying at a country club — Kucinich would study and dream big dreams. He read humorist Harry Golden and playwright Moss Hart, and vowed to emulate their up-from-the-bootstraps success.

Kucinich wrote an autobiography for school that year; in it he said he wanted a career in national politics, modeled after John F. Kennedy's. "I'm going to aim for the top," he wrote in longhand, then added the word "very" before "top."

By 23 he was a Cleveland city councilman. Eight years later, he became the "boy mayor."

The signature issue of his tenure became his bid to stave off the sale of the city's power system to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., a move that led to the city's 1978 default, the first for a city since the Great Depression.

Kucinich lost his re-election bid, but years later he claimed vindication, saying the city power system wound up saving consumers millions.

Still, his reputation as an impetuous risk-taker now seemed cemented in American political lore.

In his 1999 book, "The American Mayor: The Best & Worst Big City Leaders," historian Melvin G. Holli ranked Kucinich among the worst. Holli cited Kucinich's "abrasive, intemperate and confrontational populist political style" and said he presided over a "disorderly and chaotic administration."

Kucinich mounted a slow, steady comeback, eventually winning election to the Ohio Senate and, in 1996, a congressional seat by beating a two-term Republican incumbent.

In 2004, Kucinich ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though he finished a distant sixth in the New Hampshire primary with 1.4 percent of the vote, he developed a devoted following among anti-war activists as he pushed for a cabinet-level Department of Peace and warned that Iraq was quickly becoming another Vietnam-like quagmire.

As he runs again, Kucinich's views, which aren't that far left of Democratic orthodoxy, are less controversial than his style is.

Actress Shirley MacLaine, a Kucinich friend, recently wrote that the congressman "had a close sighting (of an unidentified flying object) over my home . . . . Dennis found his encounter extremely moving."

She recalled how he saw a "gigantic triangular craft, silent, and observing him . . . . He said he felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."

Kucinich was asked about the sighting at an Oct. 30 Democratic debate, and his answer illustrates how a street politician never forgets how to answer difficult questions.

"I'm going to move my campaign office to Roswell, New Mexico," he said, as the audience laughed, then noted that President Carter said he once saw a UFO (in 1969).

And, Kucinich said, "more people in this country have seen UFOs than, I think, approve of George Bush's presidency." When the moderator said that 14 percent of Americans say they've seen UFOs, Kucinich got him to repeat the statistic twice.

In a nutshell, that exchange was emblematic of Kucinich — different but savvy and clever, with a politician's knack for communicating.

In November, for instance, he led a fight to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. House Democratic leaders discouraged the effort, knowing that it had no chance of succeeding and preferring to call attention to other issues.

Kucinich persisted, won a key procedural vote with the help of Republicans eager to paint Democrats as extremists, and declared, "This is a national movement, and it's got the momentum."

Critics saw it as vintage Kucinich, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. But to supporters, the Cheney effort showed what's best about Kucinich.

Susan Bruce, a New Hampshire community organizer who's the coordinator of his state campaign, recalled how she backed anti-war activist Howard Dean over Kucinich in 2004 "because we thought Dean could win."

"I was being pragmatic," she said. Instead Dean lost, and the anti-war crowd found itself without a favorite candidate. This time, she said, she won't make the same mistake.

"He stands by what he says," Bruce said, "and he's been proven right in the past."

ON THE WEB

Dennis Kucinich's official campaign site

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